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Buying & Leasing a Car

On Tap: Black Boxes for All Passenger Vehicles

Your driving habits soon will be an open book to insurers and police in the aftermath of an accident or car malfunction.

A law coming this fall will require automakers to install “black boxes” in all passenger vehicles, starting with 2013 models.

Electronic data recorders more sophisticated than the ones now in about 60% of new cars will capture information about vehicular speed, direction, engine performance, brakes and electronic systems. They’ll also tell insurance investigators and law enforcement officers a lot about vehicles involved in accidents -- everything from whether drivers were wearing safety belts to exactly when air bags deployed, for example.

Besides requiring the recorders in all new cars, the government will also implement standards for what’s recorded and how -- a big change from today’s recorders, which are mainly used by manufacturers and repair shops for help in diagnosing problems when a car is in for service.

Uniform formats for data collected by black boxes will permit apples-to-apples comparisons of vehicle and driver performance prior to accidents, eliminating much of the educated guesswork.

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The impetus for the law: Toyota’s recall of millions of vehicles this past winter after a slew of incidents of sudden vehicle acceleration that still are largely unexplained. As a result of vehicle acceleration problems, the law also will require automakers to install braking systems that automatically override the accelerator in the case of a runaway vehicle. Moreover, it will raise the maximum fine for automakers found to be in violation of safety regulations to at least $200 million, from $16.4 million now.

Subpoenas will be required for law enforcement officials to gain access to black box information, since the data by law are the vehicle owner’s property. Courts are likely to acquiesce, though. They’ve shown no reluctance thus far to approve subpoenas for black boxes.